Soon after the NCAA announced the men’s basketball bracket, an idea came to me that Laura and I could have fun doing a comparative taste test of the greatest barbecue America has to offer. We are fairly well versed in Kansas City barbecue and as long as KU’s team kept winning, we would be able to tackle the best of legendary barbecue cities in St. Louis, Memphis and Dallas. As well, we could add our first-hand knowledge of North Carolina’s unique barbecue and come up with a definitive judgement.
Yea, right. KU’s loss to Stanford ended that tour and there is one other important fact – Laura and I are not big barbecue fans. We did our best in St. Louis and certainly were ready to carry on for the ultimate good. Actually, we had enough fun in St. Louis that it did not matter what happened on the court. Thanks to the mighty Mississippi, we also managed to return to Topeka with our waistlines somewhat in control.
We arrived in St. Louis on Wednesday ahead of a KU softball doubleheader against St. Louis University. Laura and I decided it would be fun to show up unannounced to photograph the games. Our arrival was a nice surprise and appreciated by the players. Once we wrapped up the softball coverage, it was time to try Pappy’s Smokehouse just a block away from the left field fence of the softball diamond.
Laura’s Facebook brimmed with suggestions for our barbecue tour, with Pappy’s leading the way. We certainly were hungry and ready, except Pappy’s was already closed ahead of regular hours. Signs informed us all the day’s meat was sold out. Disappointing, but a sign we were on the right track. We instead had a “pucking” good time at the nearby Shack Pub Grub.
We entered the door to find a table of Chicago Blackhawk fans sitting next to a table full of St. Louis Blues fans all in their sweaters. There was no need to watch one of the many televisions all turned to the game between the two rivals playing in Chicago. We just tracked it from the cheers from one of the two tables.
Well beyond the usual bar food, Laura enjoyed an Insalada salad with corn salsa, tomatoes, green onions, salsa fresca and some added chicken. My choice varied little with the Loco Pollo and its blackened chicken and same toppings all on a hearty wheat bun. Good for us since neither plate overflowed with food and good for our cash flow since each selection was only $7 from a menu filled with great bargains.
After a much-needed night’s sleep, we prepared ourselves for an early trip to Pappy’s. We were taking no chances. Even arriving at the opening hour of eleven left us waiting in a line longer than we have ever faced at Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. As we slowly worked our way down a long hallway only to U-turn and head back to the entry door, we soon discovered a second line inside. People had been waiting in line well before the doors opened.
In the end, it was all worth it. While Laura’s pork sandwich lacked real flavor, the ribs we shared were amazing. A bit too sweet for my taste, but full of meat with a delicious crunch from the seasoning and smoke-hardened sauce. From our limited barbecue knowledge, we would take the Pappy’s ribs and Oklahoma Joe’s myriad of unique sandwich choices. I enjoy Gates spicy sauce, but still treasure the history in ordering at the original Arthur Bryant’s. However, both Laura and I still would choose our North Carolina feast in Durham over all because we love the tart vinegar-based sauce over the more sugary sauces in the Midwest. Memphis will have to wait for another chance to let Rendezvous prove us all wrong with their dry rubs, which I know I will someday enjoy.
With all that said, and after the early afternoon KU practice and NCAA press conference and related work, our bikes came out to purge lunch from our systems. We darted through a barrage of downtown traffic, which was a rush I thoroughly enjoyed to get to the Riverfront Trail and a 25-mile ride along the banks of the great Mississippi River. This wonderful trail took us from the heart of the city north and east.
Along the way we glimpsed an insight into the city’s history. From the famed Arch, and passage by the Cardinals’ baseball stadium and the Rams’ NFL stadium, we could look at massive river barges docked or being tugged along the great River and then turn to look at the industrial heart of the city, some of which now sits abandoned and darkened by time. We passed a small stone landing, where in May of 1855, a group of African-Americans used a small boat to cross the Mississippi with the hopes of freedom on the Illinois shore. Sadly, only two managed to escape the horrors of slavery.
Eventually, as we rode north away from the heart of the city, we came upon an older residential area where the well maintained homes sat on higher ground beyond a wide expansive flood plain that reminded us how mighty the Mississippi could be when flooding. Massive barrier walls lined portions of the city ride where mammoth metal gates, mounted on heavy-duty tracks, fight to keep the river contained.
On a 30-mile ride Saturday, we crossed the Chain of Rocks Bridge, the original Route 66 bridge that shortened motorists’ journey across the Mississippi when completed in 1929. Today, the 5,353 foot continuous truss bridge carries only pedestrians and cyclists. Crossing the bridge, we noticed the distinct change of direction. The turn in the bridge helps it hold up to shifts in the current that make any journey along the Mississippi dangerous. We had to have fun doing with our usual off-beat acts, including spitting into the Mississippi River just like former KU basketball coach Roy Williams did to help his team get to a Final Four in New Orleans.
Like many a big city, St. Louis is trying to bring rebirth to the their once beleaguered downtown. Jefferson Street near the football dome is leading the way. We met former KU rower, Emily Star, now living in St. Louis at π. Despite its mathematical name, the hip restaurant was all about pizza pie. Our thin crusted pie filled with healthy greens and Canadian Bacon featured great spices and a much lighter feel than the usual monster pies.
Another part of the revived downtown efforts was the urban bicycle station attached to Big Shark Bicycle Company’s Urban Shark location on nearby Locust Street. Here commuters can use a keypad to enter the well equipped bike docking area with men’s and women’s locker rooms for cleanup before work. Our tour guide admitted there was plenty of room for growth, but seeing riders come and go, even on a Saturday afternoon, was heartening.
Laura and I believe in the importance of a hearty breakfast before all our adventures, so we always search out the best small diners in any city. The White Knight Diner is a St. Louis institution just a short walk from our Union Station Hotel. There is a special section of their menu devoted to customer creations that became staples. The “How About ‘Cha” provided us with two eggs, breakfast potatoes, cheese and peppers all scrambled together. True greasy spoon delight for both of us. Super thin shaved ham, crisped to bacon consistency, made the dish. Since I dislike bacon, as un-American as that sounds, this was a perfect substitute. The cooking at the huge griddle never stops and remained incredibly intense. The ballet between the wait staff and cook was a ceaseless joy to watch.
On Saturday, we met Sean, a distant cousin, of Laura’s, his wife, Kristy, and son, Ryan, at another St. Louis institution, the 64-year-old Goody Goody Diner. Unlike White Knight’s tiny confines, Goody Goody was good-sized and packed to the point long lines meant a long wait. The drive north and west from the Union Station Hotel took us through some seriously blighted areas of St. Louis where every few blocks a Chop Suey joint was the fast and cheap food of choice. While not as infamous as East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, we certainly were getting a taste of the inner city as we arrived at the shining exterior and interior of Goody Goody.
The vast menu featured fried chicken and waffles. Ryan worked his way through a hefty order of the Southern delight. Here again, I am very un-American because I really do not like fried chicken but really love eggs. The hardest decision was choosing from the 12 ways my eggs could be cooked – from tops raw to very hardened and everything in between.
Laura and Kristy played high school basketball together in Claremore, Oklahoma. Son Ryan is a senior in high school about to accept a basketball scholarship to a nearby Division II university. Sean is successful businessman and a respected AAU basketball coach in the area. The conversations moved rapidly, but not rapidly enough for the courteous staff waiting anxiously for open tables. The line was still stringing out the door when we left.
After our long ride Saturday, it was time to get dressed up and take my wonderful wife, friend and great photographer for a romantic dinner at Lombardo’s. Famed for their toasted ravioli appetizer, dating back 75 years, our waiter, Richard, proved to be the highlight of the night. Truly, this was a man steeped in the traditions of St. Louis, his life-long home, and the proper way to treat customers. As we sipped the last drops of wine from our bottle and snuggled close to each other, we thanked Richard, the great city of St. Louis and the mighty Mississippi River for opening their hearts to us.